I used to run a record shop in Yarm High Street, which I took over pretty much as soon as I left university in 1994. It was good fun – I never had any real intentions of being on the radio, in fact it never really crossed my mind, I was just tootling about in my shop being slightly grumpy to people looking for strange music. I was good friends with now-5 Live features reporter and Football Focus man and sat next to him at Middlesbrough matches. Unlike me, Clem is incredibly driven and ambitious – he decided around that stage that he fancied a media career and tirelessly pursued it.
Clem seemed to be under the impression that I was quite funny, so asked me to be involved in a demo for a potential radio programme. It ended up being called ‘Red Balls on Fire’, and I came in as a comedy sidekick, like Lard to his Mark. We recorded the demo in Clem’s front room in 1998 during the World Cup and sent it into what was then called BBC Radio Cleveland and, to my amazement, they replied, told us they really liked it and asked us to produce a pilot for a potential series. They initially wanted us for five weeks, but the show ended up lasting for three years.
‘Red Balls on Fire’ was essentially me and Clem in the studio with various people from the world of football. Our guests included Keith O’Neill, Robbie Mustoe, Curtis Fleming, Dean Gordon and Andy Townsend, and we had sketches inspired by people like Kenny Everett, who’d always interspersed his shows with surreal skits packed with sound effects like explosions etc. My job became to write sketches, spoof news reports and work with off-the-wall characters, all with a tangible Boro feel – it was a great vehicle for me to make comedy for the radio as I’d been writing for Boro fanzine ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ for quite a while, so it was largely an extension of that.
Somewhere along the line, the show metamorphosed into a sort of ‘606’-esque footie phone-in called ‘Talking Balls’. ‘Red Balls on Fire’ was a pre-recorded programme that went out on a Friday night and was repeated on a Saturday before the match, but we usually did ‘Talking Balls’ live from various grounds across the country after the final whistle. Not sure if we made to your hometown Huddersfield though as we were in different divisions at the time!
In around 2001, Clem got his gig as a reporter at 5 Live. We’d done a couple of programmes for 5 Live as ‘The Football World of Clem and Fischer’ around 1999-2000. We’d started a Saturday lunchtime programme called ‘Gobstopper’ just before Clem went to 5 Live, which wasn’t just about football but music and a lot of other stuff too, so when he went I inherited that and brought my ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ colleague, now-BBC Tees soccer commentator Mark Drury, in to work with me.
‘Gobstopper’ ran for about five years before the then-boss suggested it could work better as an evening show. We initially started on a once-a-week basis before left and Shack (also from Fly Me to the Moon) came in (other Fly Me to the Moon Fischer contributors included editor Robert Nichols and Uncle Harry, a regular on my show). We then went five-nights-a-week between 2008 and 2012, offering a strange mish-mash of new music (especially local music), surreal ramblings and lots of non-musical guests, too. We'd find our childhood heroes, people like Vicki Michelle, John Craven and Wilf Lunn, and invite them to be guests. I’m now on between 8-10pm on Saturdays and weekday afternoons for the next few months at least.
There’s kind of two sides to my broadcasting. Firstly, there’s the often-esoteric new music side, but then there’s also my glitzy, camp love of showbiz. My more recent radio years have definitely showcased a strong balance of the two. Dudley Sutton was a fantastic recent interviewee – most people will know him as Tinker from Lovejoy. He’s had an extraordinary career. In the sixties, he was in anti-capital punishment film The Boys and he played a gay biker in The Leather Boys. He was a firebrand of an actor and took these parts as they chimed with his political opinions at the time, hoping to play a part in social change. He was also a notorious hellraiser during this era and has been extremely open about all of this. He featured in Ken Russell’s notorious The Devils, which was famously cited as blasphemous, later saying he hugely admired Russell because he wasn’t scared of anyone at all.
One of my most unforgettable experiences was when we headed to Jack Charlton’s house during the old football shows. Clem certainly had no fear when it came to approaching potential interviewees. To our amazement, he agreed, though I did spill a cup of tea all over his fireplace. His memorabilia was scattered haphazardly everywhere. He was truly inspirational, as was Bruce Rioch – another childhood icon. We’ve also inevitably had tonnes of people from Doctor Who and even Graham Coxon. We met him in Gateshead and found him in his dressing room. He was shy but fantastic – at the end of it, I asked for a picture and he then suggested we turn it into a face-pulling competition. After I thanked him, he turned round and said (adopts Southern accent), “You’re a Scorpio, aren’t you? I always get on with Scorpios”. And I am!
Sometimes we approach them, sometimes they approach us. I’m very pro-active at seeking them out. I keep a close watch on local listings but we’re also on the mailing lists of various PR, management and press people.
Well, I’ve never…do you know, if someone came knocking from a national radio station, you know, undoubtedly I would, but I’ve never actively pursued it because I’m famously not particularly driven or ambitious! There’s never been a career plan – I always say I’ll be living in a log cabin in the woods somewhere in five years’ time. I’ve never approached national radio stations – I have done 5 Live shows with Clem and a science-fiction night for a couple of years ago, after they asked me.
I genuinely love local radio – I’ve never really lived away from Teesside aside from Lancaster Uni. I was actually homesick at Uni but now I love Lancaster and visit regularly.
I’ve been described as worse!
I think local radio is hugely important. Of course, there’s two things I do for BBC Tees currently – the Saturday night BBC Introducing and sitting in on weekday afternoons. For those that don’t know, is a scheme where acts can upload their music with the hope of it being broadcast by their local station, and the cream of the crop are broadcast nationally.
I’ve been doing Friday afternoons on BBC Tees recently and have sat in for a lot. Both of my shows are firmly entrenched in the local community for different reasons. The local music is a big part of what gives any area its identity – you can often see the flavour and culture of an area by the music coming out of it. BBC Introducing is a valuable structured scheme designed to give local artists the chance of being heard nationally and hugely important to the local community.
The afternoon show is rooted in a very different part of the local community – I often speak to the callers myself off-air, and we have built up a number of long-lasting relationships with local listeners. Local radio stations are a big part of peoples’ lives – I’m sure there are various people listening to BBC Tees for most of the day – most content is rooted in the local area. I’ve covered a lot of strange topics recently, including things like odd animal habits and a host of other off-the-wall topics but with a local flavour.
I think the fact that I’m from and have always lived in Teesside gives me a valuable connection to the listeners – if they reference a local place like Acklam Hall, I’m obviously going to know where it is. I think you need to have a rapport with your listeners – I love (if I can stop being self-effacing for a second here) the fact that I can build up a dialogue with listeners, even without features and “content”. You start off with a talking point and it flows from there.
It has more of an influence on the BBC Introducing show, as you’re working with musicians who will have a presence anyway. It’s not as prominent on the afternoon show as it’s more based around texts and phone calls with perhaps an older, less social media-heavy audience. I absolutely adore working with both audiences, and there is certainly a bit of a crossover.
I don’t think I’ve really needed to – though there’s definitely something in Sara Cox’s quote about being on Radio 2 during her final Radio 1 days (“it’s being yourself but with the in-laws listening in”). I don’t think any afternoon listener would think I sound like a totally different presenter on the Saturday show and vice versa. It’s still a fortysomething man chuntering on about the odd things that cross his mind. I don’t think there’s anything to tone down really!
There’s a little bit of irrelevant cheek in both shows, but nothing too explosive. I’ve never really approached either show differently to the other. I think if I tried something like (one of my favourite radio acts of all-time) Mark and Lard’s Fat Harry White on BBC Tees someone might hammer the door down quite quickly. I’m not quite sure how they got away with that – at any time of day, on any station!
The topics are largely just things that enter my head. It’s not really a question of “how do I think of them?”, it’s more a case of “how do I stop thinking of them?”. When you’ve been doing this for so long you get into a mindset of almost effortlessly identifying great topics whether you’re online, out and about, daydreaming or reading the paper. My phone is just full of drafts of radio topics. Listeners and my own stream-of-consciousness help me drive the topics and allow them to drift organically from there.
I do think there’s a peak era that forges your tastes around the ages of 8-13. I think it’s the same with most cultural forms, including books, TV, films and music – this is the stuff that builds your tastes for the rest of your life. With music, Frankie Goes to Hollywood were an obvious milestone. Even around 11, I knew they had statements to make, were a bold band and the music was fabulous. Beyond that, I started to look beyond the mainstream at around 12-13. It’s important to remember that it was hard to find alternative music around then, though I did listen to John Peel later. I also discovered country music, notably people like Johnny Cash and Lyle Lovett, as I got something different from it, and I wanted to be different from my peers. I loved the lyrics and authenticity.
I discovered The Beatles Sgt Pepper album around the age of fourteen, around the time of its 20th anniversary. It was a revelation – I’d only really heard the really famous songs before and was taken aback by songs like A Day in the Life. Its big discordant, orchestral climax was possibly one of my first exposures to genuinely experimental music with an avant-garde feel. The Beatles were an all-consuming passion and a great band to use as a starting point. They led me onto Arthur Alexander, Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, The Velvet Underground and various others – I loved the way your favourite bands send you onto what then became other favourite bands because of who they’d worked with, cited as influences and influenced themselves. By the late eighties, I was listening to tonnes of esoteric archive stuff, never thinking about what was cool and what wasn’t.
By around 1990, I’d discovered the local music scene, going to various gigs at venues in Stockton and Middlesbrough with sixth-form friends – this was when I first met Robert Nichols. The first band I ever saw live was Hartlepool’s Candy Ranch, then I also saw acts like Hope Springs Eternal, who’d take us to places like York and London, with us running the door, taking fifty-pence pieces in margarine tubs.
I’ve been putting on gigs at Eaglescliffe’s – a restaurant with an excellent backroom. I’d been going to see bands there for years but took the gigs over from Luke, the owner, after he went to university. This started at the end of 2014. It’s been a steep learning curve, especially as I’d never really put gigs on before - though I had worked for Teesside gig promoters Ten Feet Tall doing press and publicity. My money is on the line, and I have to guarantee the artist their payment whatever happens, but it has been amazing fun. I’ve tried to put on as much unique stuff as possible – including Saturday morning kids’ TV comedy geniuses Trevor and Simon, who I’ve built up a fantastic relationship with over the last few years. They were brilliant – I’ve never seen so much sentimental love for two people in a room.
Me too! My main formative memories include watching things like Swap Shop in my grandma’s front room. The whole family would join me – I don’t think you really get that kind of thing anymore. Swap Shop, Tiswas, Going Live – there was stuff in there for everybody, really. Everything’s far more compartmentalised now. I’m not sure if there’s the budget anymore for that kind of thing, sadly.
Great! For those that don’t know this strange story, for the last few years, me and a friend of mine, Andrew T. Smith, have been watching Last of the Summer Wine from the start in chronological order and . We’d both grown up with the programme. We’re different ages, so we started watching in different eras. When the final episode was broadcast, we watched it together and stuck the first episode on immediately before it coalesced into the blog. We started about five years ago, so we’re going at roughly twice the speed of the series. We jot down thoughts as we go about the episodes and the wider social context.
Because it ran for so long, it was a mainstay throughout British social history, and I think this is reflected in the programme. When you watch the first episodes, they are surprisingly bleak. It’s like Ken Loach’s vision of Yorkshire – it’s essentially about three slightly-disaffected, rather bored men whose lives are effectively over. They’re old single men, with their working days behind them, reliving their childhood years in a landscape that has changed completely from their childhood years. The countryside is desolate, full of once-thriving abandoned factories, with buildings covered in soot. We’re looking at a post-industrial era, with social changes becoming visible as the series progresses. Brian Wilde is a consummate comedy actor, as are the rest of the cast – Kathy Staff, Bill Owen, Jane Freeman and Kathy Staff. Joe Gladwin who played Nora Batty’s husband is an extraordinary comedy actor – he came out of music hall and it was fantastic to see him using the tricks he’d learned in that era in the 1980s.
We went to the café itself in Holmfirth to make a film – it’s now a working café and looks exactly as it did in the series. Laura Booth, the owner, was brilliant and more than happy to co-operate. We approached Jonathan Linsley who played Crusher in the eighties for an interview. He’s now been in things like Pirates of the Caribbean and agreed, to our delight, to come to Holmfirth to do ‘An Evening With…’-type event as an excellent culmination of all of our work.
Yes – as part of , Teesside’s premier light entertainment synth-pop rockabilly trio. No other light entertainment synth-pop rockabilly trio can touch us on Teesside! It’s just a fun thing to do, really.
Was I? Oh yes! John Otway’s Bunsen Burner in 2002. John Otway is one of the music world’s great entertainers. He reached the chart in 1977 with his long-term collaborator Wild Willy Barrett, Really Free, and fourteen years ago, for his fiftieth birthday, he and his fanbase decided it was time for another hit. He wanted a choir of his fans on it and is famous for his performances of House of the Rising Sun, which feature excellent audience participation. We all went to Abbey Road to record a new version of Rising Sun for the b-side, with hundreds of us chanting as we would at his gigs. We all got a credit on the sleeve – in tiny writing! All of us later rushed out to buy several copies. He’s an underrated genius – I’ve had him on the radio and he’s an utter gentleman, an excellent singer-songwriter and one of the most self-deprecating people I’ve ever met.
John Otway, 'Bunsen Burner', Top of the Pops, 2002
That came out of my love for science-fiction as well as the TV I grew up with, especially Blake’s 7, Star Wars and Doctor Who. I went to a Doctor Who convention in Stockton, which was the most surreal weekend, and included a Cyberman and a Time Lord casually reading the Evening Gazette sitting either side of me as I looked down on the High Street. As a result, I decided I needed to attend further conventions and realised there could be a book in it. I spent the next year going to scores of conventions and events around the UK, wrote a few chapters and sent them off to a few literary agents before it was picked up by Hodder and Stoughton. I think it’s been turned into an e-book – though I’m a proper book man myself, I spend far too much time staring at screens as it is.
I’ve also written a novel recently, which is completely differently to – although this hasn’t been published as yet. It was inspired by the likes of Alan Garner, who wrote books like The Owl Service. He combines the real world with the fantastical, setting his books around Cheshire and blending folk myth and fantasy with the local landscape, and I wanted to write something that took a bit of that spirit. I’ve even written 10,000 words of another one!
I feel really in touch with the landscape around me. I’m utterly at home with the North Yorkshire Moors – if I need to leave the world behind me and be completely at peace I take the dog up with me to the moors. The stretch of coastline from Saltburn through Whitby through to Scarborough is absolutely magical. In around 2010, I decided to do something really ambitious and walked the Cleveland Way with my friend and star of Wiffle Lever to Full, Wez. That expands for around 100 miles in a kind of horseshoe shape – starting at Helmsley and winding around the inland region and coastline before finishing at Filey Brigg. That took around five days and I made a radio programme out of it. We did the Teesdale Way around a year after that. As Wes sagely pointed out, the great thing about following the course of a river from source to shore is that it’s all downhill!
Doctor Who is a major part of my life. I love the fact that each generation has a different Doctor – for me growing up, it was Tom Baker and Peter Davison, the first one I got to follow throughout their tenure. Star Wars was a huge influence on me and my generation, then further on I loved Robin of Sherwood – which incorporated folk myth and elements of the magical into the Robin Hood story. I have a massive interest in British sitcoms and recently enjoyed Flowers with Olivia Coleman and Julian Barratt, which I thought was wonderfully distinctive and odd.